By the people, for the people: the rising force of community development trusts

15 January 2019

The emergence of community development trusts as a player in the shaping of our cities and communities invokes the memory of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  This celebrated the role that everyday people could play in shaping the built environment, in the face of top-down approaches to planning and development, with many of its lessons still holding true today.

Housing crisis legacy

Learning the hard way, the UK is gradually coming to terms with the flaws in the way development is delivered.  While numbers may be on the increase, they still fall well short of annual targets to address the backlog, created by 40 years of under-delivery by both Labour and Conservative governments.  The legacy is the housing crisis in which we currently find ourselves.  Earlier this month, a report prepared by a cross-party commission set out that more than three million new social homes are needed in the next 20 years – more than was built in the 20 years following World War II.  This involves increasing delivery to 150,000 per annum, from its current level of 6,000 – a 25-fold increase.

In parallel, urban sprawl continues apace, typified by standardised house-types lacking supporting infrastructure.  These are often driven more by ‘products’ that sell than the creation of living environments for non-financial ‘value’, such as well-being and an attractive living environment, which in turn drives value of the monetary kind.

Flaws lie not only within the planning system, but also in a lack of competition in the housing sector. In response, there is a growing demand for community-led organisations to play a more pro-active role in shaping housing delivery and creating better places.

A dynamic community contribution

There are reportedly more than 500 Community Development Trusts across the UK.  These are enterprises pursuing social and environmental (as opposed to purely financial) objectives.  They have been established to do anything from running local pubs to delivering and managing wind turbines, with many actively involved in the regeneration of deprived urban areas.

One such example is Southmead Development Trust (SDT) in North Bristol.  The area manifests many of the typical problems facing deprived areas in British suburbia – lower life expectancy, poor health, lower skill levels and anti-social behaviour.  Many of these problems are complex and interlinked.  SDT was established in 1993 to better the lives of people in Southmead, through increasing opportunity, reducing isolation and promoting well-being among the Southmead population.  It has grown into a dynamic organisation with a turnover of over £1 million.  Centred in a former secondary school, it runs a range of initiatives, courses and events, hosts a range of businesses and runs its own gym and café, an impressive array of activities by any measure.

SDT has recognised the opportunity to make its own contribution towards dealing with the housing crisis, while tackling the structural challenges facing the physical environment at the centre of Southmead.

Delivering homes and facilities

Building on the Community Plan prepared in 2015, SDT is partnering with Bristol City Council (BCC) as the main landowner in the area.  The main premise is to deliver higher-density, housing-led development at the heart of the area – starting with building on the under-used Glencoyne Square.  This will deliver a mix of modern community facilities, and smaller more affordable homes targeted at downsizers and first-time buyers, both of whom the current housing stock fails to serve.  In turn, this will help to diversify the housing offer, serving existing residents better and bringing new people into the area.

As well as housing, the first phase of the development – likely to provide over 100 homes – will also provide improvements to the streets and spaces throughout the centre, and a range of new community facilities (potentially a new library and a new health centre).  Later phases could also include workspace and other flexible spaces for community use.  The new open spaces could accommodate wildflower meadows, community gardening, lawns and play spaces for children of all ages.

Development of this nature will help to fund SDT’s programmes in perpetuity, revitalise the centre of Southmead, change perceptions of the area and improve the wellbeing of residents – the ultimate goal.

Projects such as this exemplify the potential of community-led development projects, highlighting why we need to take them seriously in addressing multiple issues we face as a society – a lack of housing, poverty and social exclusion.  While some may view their foray into the development sector as a threat, these organisations are often going where more mainstream developers are uninclined to go.  In so doing, they can play a key role in not only changing the fortunes of deprived urban areas and their people, but also stimulating future business opportunities, resulting in the ‘virtuous cycle’ of investment from which we all benefit…and that can’t be a bad thing.